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Higher Education Fundraising Using Public Relation Practices

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Higher Education Fundraising Using Public Relation Practices

The Excellence Study of public relations is studied in public relations courses throughout the United States. A variety of organizations were involved in the study including both for profit and non-profit organizations. However, there were no organizations from the higher education setting included in the study. In fact, very few studies have used the Excellence theory to examine how public relations is practiced in higher education. A true analysis of the Excellence study and how it applies to higher education is far too broad for the purpose of this presentation. Therefore, we will focus on a single aspect that is a part of every higher education institution. This study will focus on fundraising in higher education and how a fundraising group can become excellent. The core categories of the public relations Excellence theory will be discussed with an emphasis on models of public relations.

The basic mission of the higher education fundraising office, often titled University Development, is to solicit funds and support from University constituents. An article by Gary Warner titled "The Development of Public Relations Offices at American Colleges and Universities" details the origins of public relations at American Colleges and Universities. The article details that the very first college public relations effort in colonial America was actually the "begging mission" to England which was an initiative to raise funds. In 1641, preachers Hugh Peter, Thomas Weld, and William Hibbins hoped to raise funds from England for financially strapped Harvard College. The article notes, "Once in England, the preachers informed Harvard that they needed a fund-raising brochure, now a standard item in a fund drive. In response to this request came New England's First Fruits, largely written in Massachusetts but printed in London, in 1643, the first of countless billions of public relations pamphlets and brochures." Moving forward a few hundred years, public relations grew from an initial fundraising initiative to what we know it as today. In the early 1900's, two national organizations were formed for public relations and alumni relations; they were respectively, the American College Public Relations Association and the American Alumni Council. In the late 1970's the two merged into the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE). Through publications, conferences, seminars, and publications, CASE has worked to advance the fields of alumni relations, public relations, and fund raising. History shows that from the early days of American colleges and universities through the present, the publics of alumni and donors are vital to their success.

Acceptance of Grunig and Hunt's definition of public relations as, "the management of communication between an organization and its public" , leads us to the conclusion that the management of donor constituencies is a specialized form of public relations. From this conclusion, one may find it worthwhile to use ideas from the Excellence theory to examine how donor relations is practiced in a higher education setting. A recent study was completed looking at the Excellence theory and how it applies to public relations in higher education. The study identified four categories of excellent communication from organizations used in the original Excellence study: empowerment of the public relations function, communicator roles, integrated function and relationship with other functions, and models of public relations. Using these four categories we will formulate an Excellence theory for donor and alumni relations as a specialized form of public relations.

Empowerment of the public relations function includes the following characteristics from the original Excellence theory: involving the senior practitioners in the dominant coalition, managing communication programs strategically, and building a direct reporting relationship between the public relations executive and the dominant coalition. The senior practitioners in donor relations would be the folks heading the alumni offices and donor offices. Basically, the senior practitioners need to be is continual correspondence with the President and other administrative leaders. Doing so will allow the leaders of alumni and development to plan strategically and be a proactive group rather than reactive which the Excellence study showed to be very important.

Another aspect of empowerment is informal and formal research. As a development professional, I can speak from experience in this particular area. The original Excellence Study showed that excellent organizations were more likely to perform both types of research. In donor relations, research is also critical. It allows development leaders to identify donors with available funds or those who may have an affinity to give. There is also research to group donors in broad groups that can be targeted for solicitations. Informal research also takes place through conversations or phone calls with constituents. A phone call may show a donor to have no interest in the institution which allows the office to cease contact with the constituent. With this research, strategic plans can be discussed and implemented by the fund-raising professionals. Research will be discussed further during the final category analysis, models of donor relations.

The next category in the excellence study is communicator roles. In regards to donor relations, this would include the roles of the folks that assist the donor relations office. Just like an excellent communication program has a variety of roles, a variety of roles also exist in institutional donor relations. Normally, the top roles are something similar to a VP or associate VP of University Development. This person needs to have a very thorough understanding of the overall operations of donor relations. Also, in an excellent donor relations department, he or she is involved in the dominant coalition and allows the donor relations office to be represented in overall decision making of the institution and helps identify some emerging issues with other members of the dominant coalition. Major gift officers are responsible for research, cultivation and solicitation of individual donors which happens through traveling, phone calls and institutional events. A database administrator may also be on staff that is responsible for the institution's alumni and donor data. Gift processors enter gifts into the database as they come in and run basic reports on giving. A stewardship coordinator has the responsibility of making sure that all donors are recognized appropriately whether it is a letter or recognition in the institution magazine. The director of the institution's

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